I spent my fall semester of the year 2016 with IES Abroad Rome, and it was incredible.
There were many obstacles that I encountered immediately upon arrival. I had never travelled outside of the United States of America before, so the sense of disorientation and cultural shock was jarring and frightening. Sometimes I felt so overwhelmed that I didn't want to leave my homestay or go to school. IES had a support system for me already set in place; I could talk to professors, administrative officers, and the ever-lovable ISCs (Italian-Speaking Student Companions). They were more than faculty; they were friends and peers willing to help, whether that meant fetching some tissues or just listening and sharing stories.
The IES Abroad Rome's Program also took us on a few field trips, both around Rome and out to other Italian cities like Siena and Pompeii. While there is strengths in numbers, sometimes I wished I had gone by myself to these places. (Later on, during Fall Break, I did just that, and I did a mini tour of Central/Northern Italy). That being said, IES worked really hard to organize trips with guides able to provide a unique perspective and remarkable insights. Did you know, for example, that there's a saying among the people in Siena that says the curly-haired woman is capricious? With each curl, our tour guide explained, she changes her mind. As someone with a headful of curls, I was at first offended. Then I changed my mind.
My favorite memories from my time in Rome were made when I was either on my own or with one or two close friends. IES gave me the perfect balance of space and guidance. Students could travel anywhere, as were encouraged to do so, on the weekends and over Fall Break as long as we left our travel details with the school's administrative office. No section of the city of Rome itself was off limits though we were advised to avoid certain areas at night. These safety protocols were essential for me particularly when several earthquakes hit central Italy around the time of my stay. A few of the stronger quakes could be felt in Rome, and since I'd never experienced that before I was terrified. IES has a quick emergency response protocol, and no sooner had I felt the earthquake and found out what had happened then IES texted and emailed me to verify my location and safety. The faculty also held a program meeting to discuss earthquakes and answer any questions the students had. This made me feel safer and more confident that I was in good hands.
Cultural immersion is not, I've decided, something that any school or program can enforce. IES gave me all of the tools - Italian language courses, social time with the ISCs, and my homestay option. I chose to take advantage of those, even though I could have only spoken to or hung out with other American students. I had only taken two Italian language classes at my home university, and that was a year before I decided to go abroad to Rome - I basically knew nothing. Upon returning, I have since tested into a junior/senior standing translation course. That improvement is something IES and I accomplished together.